Glass Bowed Psalteries?

A while back I became aware of an interesting instrument: a glass bowed psaltery. (You can see for yourself here—about 3/4 the way down on the right.)

Now, reasoning that the bowed psaltery has sort of a “glassy” tone, you’d think that an all-glass psaltery would be a great idea. It perhaps would have a sort of “mystical” sound to it that nothing else could match. (According to the builder, the psaltery linked to above was made from both glass and acrylic.)

Well, as luck would have it, I used to work with both glass and acrylic when I built aquariums as a hobby. And so I decided to try this out myself, just as an experiment. Actually, I only used a glass top, so I was able to convert an existing wood psaltery into a glass-topped one by simply removing the soundboard and making a few modifications.

I used a wetsaw and cut out the triangular shape, then I made a circular soundhole with a diamond-tipped holesaw. Just for effect, I used a dremel and etched patterns into the underside of the glass. I set the glass into the psaltery (it was simply held in from the pressure of the strings/bridge, rather than glued/siliconed), and prepared to play this “mystical” instrument.

The result?

There was absolutely nothing “mystical” about it at all. As a matter of fact, it sounded virtually identical to a wood-topped psaltery. The only difference that I could really hear was that the tone was muted and soft. And of course, with glass being as dense as it is, the tone was also very shallow, and the instrument was as heavy as a brick.

Now, I’m sure that most percussion-style instruments built with glass may be a whole different animal, but in my opinion, with a bowed psaltery, the overall design and construction of the instrument has a much greater impact on the sound than the actual materials used. It’s just that certain materials—like quartersawn softwoods—seem to work a whole lot better in achieving a deeper tone.

So, I’m posting this in the How-To section, or rather, how NOT to…